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Revolutionary day: the birth of the integrated circuit

Over six decades ago, Jack Kilby submitted one of the most consequential patents in human history.

It's difficult to overstate the importance of the integrated circuit (IC). Alternatively known as a microchip, the device has virtually created the world we live in today.

Virtually, all modern devices rely on microchips to power any computer's logic components, the microprocessors. Basically, if the device requires more 'brain' than manual operation, it likely depends on the IC.

Tyranny of numbers

In the early days of computing, engineers faced a dazzling problem. Mid-50s machines required every component to be wired to every other component in the device.

Because of that, any increase in performance required more components. That's one of the reasons early computers were humongous.

Jack Kilby's Integrated Circuit. Image by the Smithsonian.

For example, the first 'portable' computer, DYSEAC, weighed around 20 tons and took two trailer vans to transport.

The 'tyranny of numbers' was the problem a 36-year-old newly employed electrical engineer at Texas Instruments (TI), Jack Kilby, went on to solve.

Having started the role only recently, Kilby could not have a summer vacation. Instead, he spent the summer months figuring out that a single piece of semiconductor material might end the dreaded 'tyranny.'

Road to patent

On September 12, 1958, Kilby presented his summer project to TIs management, including the head of the company Mark Shepherd.

Kilby showed the audience a piece of germanium with an oscilloscope attached. He pressed the switch, and the round screen showed a continuous sine wave to everybody's surprise.

That was the first time somebody presented a working solution to the 'tyranny of numbers.' In essence, that was a practical demonstration that it’s possible to increase computing performance without increasing the device's size.

Sixty-three years ago, on February 6, 1959, TIs engineer submitted a patent for "Miniaturized Electronic Circuits," the first stone in humanity's road to the digital age.

Jack Kilby's Integrated Circuit. Image by the Smithsonian.

What about Noyce?

Unbeknownst to Kilby, another soon-to-be-famous inventor, Robert Noyce, was working on the very same problem. Only half a year later, Noyce invented the monolithic integrated circuit.

Unlike Kilby's chip, the monolithic IC depended on silicon rather than germanium, and it used copper lines to connect components together.

The monolithic IC was much easier to produce. Its success is best illustrated by the fact that a particular area in the western US is known as Silicon Valley, not Germanium Valley.

While it is true that modern chips are based on Noyce's design, it was Kilby who was the first to demonstrate the solution to the 'tyranny of numbers.'

Later years

The invention of the IC falls in the same category as the discovery of oxygen, the invention of photography, and many other cases where several people independently made revolutionary discoveries simultaneously.

Even though Noyce is a household name, Kilby did not go into obscurity either.

In 1965, he patented thermal printing, which produces a printed image selectively heating thermal paper. Later, Kilby led the Texas Instruments' team that created the first handheld calculator in 1967, the Cal Tech.

In 2000, Kilby, along with Zhores I. Alferov and Herbert Kroemer, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 'for his part in the invention of the integrated circuit.'

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